Gabriel Bouys, Getty Images Rachelle Spector, the wife of music producer Phil…
- Posted on Jan 26th 2011 10:30AM by Jenny Charlesworth
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The studio genius gave the world a host of classics from 'Be My Baby' to 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'' and 'River Deep - Mountain High.' That was then. In 'The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector' -- which screens at Toronto's Bell Lightbox Jan. 27 - Feb. 2 -- award-winning director Vikram Jayanti explores the two facets of Spector: iconic pop producer and apparently deranged psychopath.
Poetic and masterful, the acclaimed documentary pushes you to reexamine Spector's sonic legacy -- which also includes masterpieces by the Beatles, Yoko Ono, Ike and Tina Turner and the Ramones -- through the lens of the bizarre and disturbed character we now know him to be. Where Spector's indelible 'Wall of Sound' technique once recalled youthful bliss, those melodies now swell with forbodding doom, while songs like 'He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)' foreshadow a gruesome night that ended with a gun shot and an untimely death of a troubled Hollywood actress.
Jayanti tells Spinner about his regular visits to Spector's California mansion before the infamous producer was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009. It was here, surrounded by surveillance cameras, that Spector unloaded.
Did meeting Phil at his home confirm or shatter any preconceptions you had about him?
I was nervous because of his reputation as a whack job and a gun nut and how difficult he was known to be over the years. I checked with a friend on the homicide squad who told me that they'd gotten all 38 guns out of the house -- 23 were registered. So I wasn't going to get shot.
I had heard only stories about how he would keep people waiting for four or five hours before he'd come down. So I was prepared for the long-haul. But he came in right away, and what stunned me was he was actually fun to have a conversation with. He was very funny and a good storyteller -- much more lucid than I expected. I mean, he's still bizarre in all kinds of ways: I told him how the guy commissioning the film had been one of the producers of the Bob Dylan film, 'No Direction Home,' and he said to me, "Oh, that Zimmerman, you'd think after 40 years he'd have learned how to play the f---ing harmonica."
We didn't really have interview sessions. I did it just to hang out and have conversations, and at a certain point we decided to do it with a camera there. I think that's why you see him as no one has ever seen him. It's not interviews, so he can't do his shtick. The few times in the last 50 years where he's talked on camera, he's usually doing his shtick.
The bodyguards were milling around. Sometimes they wandered in if Phil wanted them to get us water. Sometimes they would sit in the background by the surveillance televisions. I think they were his friends, so I didn't really think of them as his bodyguards. They were just there.
Were any subjects off-limit, in particular, the trial?
There was nothing we couldn't talk about it. I came to his house the first two months before the first trial, and the conversation could go anywhere; there were no rules. In the film, I just put what I was interested in, the conversation sort of traveled organically. So rather than having points I wanted to make, I wanted to see where the conversation would go and I just flowed as it went.
Didn't you give some thought as to how his life story would shadow the court case and how to draw those parallels through your conversations?
There was nothing that tactical about it. The trial itself was providing anything I needed about either the accusations or the defense. What I was much more interested in -- and I said this at the beginning [to Phil] -- was exploring his musically legacy in the light of the trial. I was going to juxtapose the music with the trial because I figured if you look at the music and you listen to it very hard, in the context of the trial, maybe you would get some light cast on how it is that the man who made this music ended up on trial for murder -- and vice versa.
I feel like you hear the music quite differently in this film from the way you're used to hearing it coming out of a radio or whatever. So that was always my intent, to sort of excavate any possible connection at some deep psychic level between the music and the events around the court.
How do you balance presenting the facts with weaving a compelling story?
I try very hard not to overdo the facts in any of my films. And in this particular case, that was helpful because Phil isn't very good with facts at all -- he makes stuff up. I've had music critics call me up and say, "Well, that's not true. He didn't write that song. Why did you let him say that?" But the thing is, Phil believes it as he's saying it and I want that on display, that psychological work. I wasn't going to keep saying, "You didn't write that song," or "You just said you were in London when John [Lennon] died, and now you say you were in New York when he died." I wasn't going to do that because I was much more interested in the guy's psychology and letting him talk and be Phil, and see how he wanted to present himself because I just want to know what it feels like to be someone like Phil.
I was watching him in court and I began imagining, he's on trial for murder, but meanwhile through his head he has his greatest hits running. "Don't they know who I am? Don't they know who I am?" I was trying to get that feeling into the film.
What was your biggest challenge while making the documentary?
Not to be so put off by the public freakishness and the reputation that you can't hear him, because you're trying to humanize the alien. I think at the end of the film, this very strange person is humanized by the audience, not in the way that lets him off the hook if he murdered somebody, and not in a way that justifies or excuses his behavior, but I think you feel him as a human being.
And the second challenge is not to get Stockholm syndrome. You're close to this person, and yes, he may be evil, but he's certainly charismatic, and you begin to fall under his spell -- you have to protect against that as well. You just have to try to keep scouring your heart with a combination of empathy and skepticism, and hope that helps you navigate to finding some deeper truth. And I think the deeper truth is that there's a connection between the music and being in the courtroom.
How did you feel when you learned Phil was found guilty at the second trial?
Whether you're innocent or guilty, my heart breaks at the thought of everybody, anybody, facing being put in a cell. That's not to say that it's not fair or not right, but you have this moment of enormous compassion running through you with Phil, just as you have this moment of tremendous compassion for whatever happened to Lana Clarkson, that poor, poor women. Dying, whether by her own hand or by Phil's, is a horrible thing and probably much worse than going to jail. But Phil, too, is in hell now. This was a night that had only losers.